After five years of fitful progress, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is on the verge of indicting those persons responsible for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. Although early investigations pointed the finger at Damascus, the STL seems ready to indict members of Hizbullah for the killing. Speculation in Beirut and across the region has reached a feverish pitch, with reports and commentaries suggesting that the indictment’s consequences may include political crisis, civil unrest, and war.
Amid the ruckus, the Tribunal’s credibility has apparently become an issue. Sensible commentators, like Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch, have questioned the prudence of throwing American support behind an international judicial body that “many people in the region” believe is a political tool.
Essentially, Lynch argues that the STL’s credibility problems result from its own investigative turns, particularly its shift in focus from Syria to Hizbullah. In this view, the STL will pursue the “Party of God” because the regional political climate favors détente with Syria, and not because investigators have uncovered new evidence of some sort. Thus, Lynch continues, the U.S. should refrain from supporting the Tribunal for fear of enflaming regional sentiments or ensnaring itself in another Lebanese crisis. Peace over justice, as justice involves shades of grey, seems to be the gist of Lynch’s argument.
But let’s not put the cart before the horse. It is certainly true that the issues at hand are controversial, but this is precisely why international tribunals exist in the first place. All international tribunals raise sensitive political issues and suffer from the “credibility question.” Paradoxically, by their very existence, these tribunals often enflame the tensions that they seek to put to rest. To escape accountability, war criminals, genocidal maniacs, and political murderers have in the past threatened to wreak havoc against local populations at the heart of an investigation.
Nevertheless, special courts and tribunals place the pursuit of justice under an international umbrella and beyond the reach of local machinations. Beginning with the Nuremburg Trials, which dealt with Nazi war criminals, the international community has used special courts to deal with conflict and crime in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and East Timor. The logic is quite simple: no justice, no peace. By holding individuals and groups accountable for their crimes, the international community has sought to overcome the climate of impunity that so often threatens peace and stability. Lebanon is no different.
It’s not as if Lebanese involvement in Hariri’s killing would come as a surprise. The edifice of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon rested upon a joint Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus that harassed, kidnapped, tortured, and killed Lebanese dissidents for fifteen years. These are not speculative barbs, but ugly realities that many Lebanese – including friend and family members – have experienced first-hand. Moreover, since the Cedar Revolution of 2005, unseen hands have murdered journalists, politicians, and security officials connected to Lebanon’s independence movement and to the Tribunal’s investigation. Of course, Hizbullah’s involvement in these actions remains unknown – but the organization is part and parcel of the security apparatus that once lorded over the Lebanese.
To accompany a campaign of orchestrated chaos, Syria and Hizbullah have smeared the STL in the press, at public rallies, and behind closed doors. By cultivating fear of untold consequences and attacking the investigation’s credibility, Syria and Hizbullah aim to exhaust local and international support for the Tribunal and dodge the wheels of justice.
In any case, abandoning the STL will not gain the U.S. friends in Tehran, Damascus, or Hizbullah. These actors simply oppose American influence in the region. Revoking support for the Tribunal won’t win hearts and minds on the Arab Street, either. Washington’s failure to step up would probably undercut moderates in Beirut, derail justice in the region, and lose the U.S. quite a few friends that it does have.
To be sure, the U.S. must lead a multilateral effort to prevent the politicization of the STL’s proceedings, doing its best to ensure the trial is fair. But caution should not lead to silence or abandonment.
Far from latching on to a “Bush-era relic,” the Obama Administration has taken an important step towards achieving positive continuity in U.S. policy towards Lebanon. In other words, the U.S. can increase its staying power in the region by supporting allies, leading an international effort supported by many Western and Arab states, and committing itself to a pursuit of justice that “many people in the region” actually support.
After all, an indictment is not a judgment. Once prosecutors present their evidence, which remains unknown despite rampant speculation, the joint international-Lebanese judicial body can explore the merits of the case. In the meantime, Syria, Hizbullah, or anyone else may find it difficult to preserve their own credibility by violently opposing the STL.
For too long, the Lebanese and other peoples in the region have been content with trading justice for the illusion of peace. In the process, they have secured neither. American support for the STL will help set an example: in setting aside vengeance for prosecution by law, the people of the Middle East can move towards a more stable order.
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